How Does Solar Energy Turn Into Electricity

Joe Brennan
Jun 27, 2023

Solar energy has taken the world by storm, offering a sustainable and renewable energy source. But how does solar energy turn into electricity? We're here to explain the mechanics and magic behind this technological marvel.

The idea of harnessing the sun's energy is far from new. Ancient civilisations used the sun's heat to warm their homes, dry their food, and even tell the time. However, the concept of converting sunlight directly into electricity is a more recent development, and it's revolutionising the way we power our homes and businesses. The key to this transformation lies in the understanding of how solar panels work.

So, let's take a journey from the sun's rays to your home's electric sockets, uncovering the fascinating process of how solar panels convert sunlight into electricity.

Understanding Energy

Energy is everywhere – it powers our bodies, fuels our vehicles, and lights up our homes. It exists in various forms, such as light, heat, and electricity. The law of conservation of energy asserts that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only change form.

Solar panels harness the sun's light energy, converting it into electrical energy. However, due to the inherent inefficiencies in the conversion process, some of the light energy transforms into heat instead.

Once the sunlight is transformed into electricity, metallic conductors within the panel carry this energy towards your home's battery storage. Here, the electrical energy transforms into chemical energy, ready to be converted back into electricity when needed.

The Photovoltaic Effect

The photovoltaic effect is the foundation of how solar panels work. Discovered by French physicist Edmond Becquerel in 1839, this phenomenon involves converting light into electrical energy.

Photons, which carry energy, make up light. When these photons hit a photo-reactive surface, they excite the electrons within the material. This excitation leads to the creation of an electric current. However, the frequency required to trigger this reaction varies across materials. In solar panels, semiconductors act as the photoelectric medium that converts sunlight into electricity.

The Role of Semiconductors

Semiconductors are materials that conduct electricity better than insulators (like wood or glass) but not as well as conductors (like copper or gold). The conductivity of semiconductors can be adjusted by adding impurities – a process known as doping. This versatility makes them extremely useful in various applications, including solar panels and digital devices.

Silicon is the most common semiconductor, often taking the form of silicon wafers. The silicon wafers used in solar panels are 'doped' to create positively charged (p-type) and negatively charged (n-type) layers, forming an electric field within the wafer.

Silicon: The Star of Solar Panels

Silicon is the star of the solar panel show due to its unique properties. The crystalline structure of silicon wafers is vital to their function. In this structure, electrons are bound in place, unable to move freely. However, when the wafer receives an energy input (like sunlight), the electrons gain enough energy to break free and move around, creating an electric current.

Solar panels can utilise different types of silicon, including:

  • Monocrystalline Silicon (Mono-Si)
  • Polycrystalline Silicon (Poly-Si)
  • Amorphous Silicon (a-Si)

Each type of silicon has its own advantages and disadvantages, affecting the panel's efficiency and cost. However, the underlying principle of how solar panels work remains consistent across these types.

The Journey of Sunlight

So, what exactly happens when sunlight hits your solar panels? As the sun's rays fall onto the panel, they interact with the silicon wafers. The photons in the sunlight must have energy levels at or above the band gap of the semiconductor to interact effectively. When they do, three things can occur:

  1. Photons may be reflected off the panel's surface.
  2. If the photon's energy level is below the band gap, they will pass through the panel.
  3. If the photon's energy level meets or exceeds the band gap, they will interact with the semiconductor, exciting the electrons and creating an electric current.

The Architecture of Solar Cells

The design of a solar cell plays a crucial role in this process. The thin, n-doped layer is placed directly under the glass, atop the thicker, p-doped layer. The sunlight penetrates the n-side and reaches the p-n junction. The energy from the photons is transferred to the electrons, allowing them to move across the depletion zone and into the p-side. Here, the electrons recombine with the holes on the p-side, while the sunlight continually stimulates new electron-hole pairs in the depletion zone. This continuous movement is what generates the electric current.

The Inverter: Converting DC to AC

The electricity produced by the solar panels is in the form of direct current (DC). However, most home appliances use alternating current (AC). Therefore, an inverter is needed to convert the DC electricity produced by the solar panels into AC electricity that can be used in your home.

The Power of Net Metering

Net metering is a system that measures the electricity your solar panels produce and the amount you use. When your panels produce more electricity than you need, the excess is sent back to the grid. Conversely, when your panels don't generate enough (such as at night or on cloudy days), you can draw electricity from the grid. This system ensures you always have the power you need, and it can even result in credits on your energy bill if you consistently produce more electricity than you consume.


The process of how solar panels work to convert sunlight into electricity is a testament to human ingenuity. By harnessing the photovoltaic effect and the properties of semiconductors, we can transform the abundant energy of the sun into a form we can use in our everyday lives. This sustainable, renewable energy source is playing a crucial role in our shift away from fossil fuels and towards a cleaner, greener future.

Installing solar panels is a smart move, not just for the environment but for your wallet too. If you're in Dublin or the surrounding counties, consider Going Solar for your solar panel installation needs. They offer high-quality solar panels and professional installation services to help you harness the power of the sun.

Remember, understanding how solar panels work is the first step towards a more sustainable future. If you're ready to take the leap and go solar, contact Going Solar today.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do solar panels generate electricity?

Solar panels generate electricity by using silicon wafers to create an electric field. When sunlight hits the panel, the photons excite the electrons in the silicon, causing them to move and create an electric current.

Why are semiconductors used in solar panels?

Semiconductors, like silicon, are used in solar panels due to their unique properties. They can be 'doped' to create an electric field, and their electrons can be excited to move freely and generate an electric current.

What is doping?

Doping is the process of adding impurities to a semiconductor. In the case of solar panels, silicon is doped to create layers that are positively charged (p-type) and negatively charged (n-type), forming an electric field within the wafer.

Why do solar panels have metal gridlines?

The metal gridlines on a solar panel, known as fingers and busbars, capture and transport the electric current generated in the solar cells. They carry this electricity out of the panel and towards your home's battery storage or inverter.

How much solar energy is converted into electricity?

The amount of solar energy converted into electricity depends on various factors, including the efficiency of the solar panels. On average, solar panels can convert around 15% to 20% of the sunlight they receive into usable electricity.

How is solar energy stored?

Solar energy can be stored through the use of batteries. Excess electricity generated by solar panels can be stored in batteries for later use, typically during times when sunlight is unavailable, such as at night or during cloudy days. This stored energy can then be utilized to power electrical devices or systems when needed.

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*FYI, parts of this blog post were drafted by artificial technlogy. But rest assured, it's been thoroughly researched, edited, reviewed and me & my team.
Author Fahad Zahid
Founder @ Going Solar

Joe Brennan, the founder of Going Solar, is dedicated to making solar power mainstream in Ireland and meet SEAI objectives. With a focus on affordability and sustainability, he is bringing renewable energy solutions to homes, reducing costs & environmental impact.